Since launching Fireflyline I’ve worked with a number of organizations that produce uniforms. The companies have covered many markets including grocery stores, military, school uniform and protective apparel. Organizations producing uniforms have unique needs compared to other apparel retailers.
Consistency of Fit
Consistency of fit across styles is important for any apparel retailer but is absolutely critical for those selling uniforms. If someone purchases a size extra-large polo shirt then they also expect the size extra-large jacket or woven shirt to fit them properly. Employees placing uniform orders don’t frequently have opportunities to try on their uniform. If their uniform wears out they expect they can replace the items by purchasing the same size.
Consistency can be achieved through multiple steps. Measurement specs for new products should be compared to current styles. The grading (increases and decreases between sizes) used should be consistent across all types of products. New styles should be started based on established block patterns. If the patternmaker follows the same block pattern for multiple styles, they will have similar shapes in addition to measurements. All production should then be audited to verify the factory achieved the desired fit and all points of measurement are within established tolerances.
If sizing changes are made to improve the fit of a product, it’s critical to track how the changes impact both sales and satisfaction. Satisfaction can be tracked through returns or client feedback. Anecdotal evidence isn’t actionable. Companies need to track the percent of each product returned and why it was returned. They also need to capture customer comments, reviews and feedback in a manner that can be consolidated to track trends.
Extensive Size Ranges
Normally I tell brands not to try and fit everyone. Select a group of sizes and focus on creating great product for that market. But for uniforms, you really do need to fit everyone. There might be fitness standards that refine the size range, such as protective apparel for firefighters. But for a uniform company producing polos for employees at big box stores they are going to need a huge range of sizes. I often grade knit tops from XXS to 7X for these companies. They may order only a few units of the largest or smallest sizes or they may only produce those sizes as special orders. Either way there will always be someone outside of the size range. Production of single garments for unique situations needs to be considered ahead of time and accounted for in costs. Discuss these needs with your factory when initially costing the production.
Fitting everyone well can require creating options for multiple body shapes such as curvy and straight fit pants for women or slim, husky and regular kids’ styles for school uniform. The number of stock keeping units (SKUS) can quickly escalate.
Don’t Try and Create Unique Sizing Systems
There are no body measurement standards for women in the US apparel industry. A woman who is a 6 in one brand could be a 10 in another brand. A size Small might be a 4-6 for one company and an 8-10 for another company. Do the research and try and be similar to competitors and the retail brands that you think are shopped by the end users. There are standards and research available from organizations like ASTM and Alvanon. Put in the work. Don’t create a really unique sizing system that the final consumer can’t follow.
Menswear and Children’s apparel is a bit more standardized in the US so follow US ASTM standards or recommendations from a service provider like Alvanon. Understand what other companies are doing and compare your own grades to competitors every few years to validate.
Product Line + Custom
Offering both an existing product line and customizations for retail companies can be a huge advantage. Those customizations should focus on style, not fit unless the client has a very particular niche. Customizations can be as simple as a colorblock or custom embroidery or as complex as a specially designed product line. Avoid creating unique size standards or custom fits for separate companies. If car rental agency A has a blue fleece jacket and car rental agency B comes to you for uniforms; you want to be able to offer the same jacket in red without having to refit and resize the whole style. Only if the client has a unique niche market should the fit be altered for a specific industry or client.
More companies are realizing that their brand is represented in everything they do. This includes what their employees wear. Service companies such as hotels and restaurants can create unique brand messaging through customized uniforms.
Presenting custom designs to companies outside the apparel industry can be challenging. Traditional fashion illustrations or flat sketches may not tell the desired story to executives working in other industries trying to select uniforms for their employees. I’ve assisted clients who produce uniforms by creating 3D renderings of garments in the proposed designs. 3D can be easier for clients to visualize and we can create the 3D renderings in any sizes desired.
Viable for US Manufacturers
Uniforms are steady, non-seasonal business. Uniforms don’t need to be redesigned every few months. This makes them an attractive proposition to factories. Many of the styles are simple and fabrics are frequently shared across many styles. Lead times can be critical to fill large orders from corporate clients. Manufacturing uniforms in the US is not only possible but can be an advantage. The US military and many municipalities require US production of uniforms so the skills to produce these items still exist within US factories. Manufacturing costs are frequently higher but don’t forget to calculate all logistical costs when comparing to overseas production costs. US manufacturing isn’t usually the right fit for cost competitive polyester/cotton polos sold to industries with high employee turnover such as grocery or big box retailers. But US manufacturing can be a great fit for uniforms focused on specialty service industries or protective apparel.